When Irish bar The Plow and the Stars had to close in the first few days of San Francisco’s shelter-in-place order in March 2020, no one could have predicted that the closure would last a year.
Owner Séan Heaney certainly didn’t.
Heaney shows me around the bar on a Monday afternoon, just days before St. Patrick’s Day. Chairs and stools are stacked on the dark wooden tables and bar. The elevated stage, where countless musicians have played, is lit and empty, a far cry from the Irish violinists and bluegrass bands that have been the focus of attention over the decades, filling the bar with their music.
“I thought it was only going to be two or three weeks, probably at a very early stage, so I wasn’t really concerned,” Heaney said. “And then, as it went on, it became very obvious [COVID-19 is] not something that would go away – it would be a long way. “
What helped the bar survive was the music scene that the Plow has nurtured over the years. Although the live music stopped, the music continued online: The Bar’s Facebook site has become a who’s who of musicians who have played the bar for the past four decades. Many of them have contributed a short five minute video each of which explains why they love the plow and plays a song to raise money. Heaney proudly shows me the videos and shows musicians from all over the world, from Ireland to Japan, who fondly remember their bar.
When longtime customer and friend Gloria Gregg found the bar was hurting, she helped organize a GoFundMe fundraiser to give the bar some cash flow while the taps stay off. Gregg had been in the bar since 1978 before Heaney took over in 1981 and is one of the many musicians to have played there in the past. She got poetic about nights when the music commanded silence over the bar and remembered playing the dulcimer herself for the crowd.
“When it became clear that COVID would keep the place closed for a long time, [for] Myself and some of my musician friends, it was clear that we had to do something, ”said Gregg. “There was no question about it, because it’s a San Francisco landmark, among other things, but it’s also a place [for] Musicians who don’t make a lot of money but still love to play … Everyone firmly believed the place had to survive and people are ready to do whatever it takes to make sure that happens. “
The GoFundMe has raised about $ 33,000 to date, and the group is hoping to raise a bit more to help raise the bar.
The Plow and the Stars stage has hosted many musicians over the years, many of whom are trying to save the bar.
Patricia Chang / Special on SFGATE
Although many bars in San Francisco decided to open parklets to cater to the outdoor crowds, as per city and state COVID-19 guidelines, the plow and the stars took a different route. Assuming they could safely accommodate a maximum of 20 people outdoors, the bar went into hibernation last year and shut down services like cables and trash to save money until they could reopen.
And while the prospect of an Irish bar closing for two consecutive St. Patrick’s Day celebrations is a terrible prospect, St. Patrick’s Day is by far the “biggest day of the year,” Heaney said, saying what he and his family were saying its closure was discovered by the larger community advocating reopening. They were luckier than most bars in their situation.
Malone understands the excitement. He’s been working at the bar since he was 21 in 2011, the next generation of the family to run The Plow and the Stars. Even though the bar is closed, Malone has still taken t-shirt and sweatshirt orders and often receives emails about how much the bar means to former customers. A sale was recently made to a couple in Boston, Malone recalled, who said they had told their 13-year-old son stories about their time in San Francisco, which included the plow.
Malone shared stories of patrons who met at the bar and are now married, and of those who have become good friends of the family over the years – he’s even become best friends of people who, over the years, have become through theirs Doors have come. Malone has been hosting a weekly online quiz night every Monday since April, much like the bar every week, and when he was forced to skip two weeks he realized what that social interaction means for all of their customers.
“The plow is almost like a living room,” said Malone. “People gather there, there has always been great music, my father has had great Irish music over the years [and] Musicians came back and wanted to play there … I think it just got really friendly where everyone is made to feel welcome. “
The Plow and Stars sit empty and quiet as it stayed closed for a full year after San Francisco bars closed during the shelter-in-place order in March 2020.
Patricia Chang / Special on SFGATE
The bar gained its legacy status in San Francisco two years ago, but it also has a soft spot for its Clement Street neighbors. The close-knit neighborhood along this stretch of Richmond has all offered to help in one way or another. Heaney said when they considered building a parklet outside, nearby neighbors offered to work with them to get some food, including the popular Burma superstar nearby.
However, the plow’s long-standing place in the neighborhood has touched more than just the bar guests. Heaney got a rental break thanks to a forgiving landlord who has known him for 40 years. “We saw her children grow up and she saw our children grow up,” he said.
Despite some loans and grants they received during the year, Heaney had to take on some debt during the COVID-19 crisis, he said.
Although the bar will be closed for St. Patrick’s Day, Heaney and Malone are finally seeing a way to reopen. With lovely spring weather on the way and San Francisco hopefully reaching the orange level soon – and eventually the yellow level where bars can reopen indoor capacity to 25% – they are trying again to build an outdoor parklet. with the promise to welcome their friends and customers back.
Heaney knows it will be a while before they can see music back at the Plow, but he’s planning a comeback in the coming month or so if things continue to move in a positive direction.
“I myself feel right now that there is light at the end of the tunnel,” said Heaney as we stood in the empty bar. “I feel like the more people are vaccinated, the greater the chances we have.”